Geelong has been talking about building an architectural icon for decades.  Perhaps it would be a Guggenheim Museum, or any number of other proposals for the north facing waterfront. Most recently a more dubious proposal was put forward regarding a colossal offshore casino. Whilst that particular unsolicited proposal would do far more harm than good, it is part of an ongoing broader discussion of what a 21st Century Geelong could be.

Geelong is also currently undergoing a substantial economic adjustment. Just as the wool trading economy of the 19th century made way for manufacturing and industrial economy of the 20th century, Geelong is now transitioning again, to reshape itself into a knowledge based economy.

It is within this context that ARM Architecture have delivered a building of critical importance to Victoria’s second largest city, a brand new library and heritage centre.

The new Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, Designed by ARM Architecture. View from Johnstone Park, with the Geelong Peace Memorial in the foreground. Photography by Michael Smith

The timing of this project makes it an interesting case study for the future of public libraries. There has never before been so much information so readily available through mobile phone and other personal devices. The question then arises what is the purpose of a public library? Are they even still relevant in the 21st century?

Photography by Emma Cross

During the construction of this new landmark, the bold spherical form became the primary talking point for locals who likened the construction to ‘star wars’, soccer or golf balls and even ‘the big brain’.

The spherical form is not an obvious conclusion from the design problem. Yet it works remarkably well within the direct context. From Johnstone Park the curved silhouette of the library is sympathetic to that of the mature treeline. The darker glazing reduces the visual bulk of the building due to the contrast with the sandy coloured tones of the sphere shell.  This material palette references the 1926 Geelong Peace Memorial to which the library is attached.  

“There’s a Renaissance tradition of the grotto and the garden. There’s the primal space of the cave, but it’s also man made, as if we’ve manufactured nature.”
Ian McDougall, ARM Founding Director

The Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (left) and the State Government building (right). Photography by Emma Cross

The spherical form also works in the context of the neighbouring State Government Offices building.  Commonly referred to as the ‘upside down’ building, the inverted pyramid form of the State Government Offices presents a precedent for a large geometrical form. Moving around to the Eastern Façade, the sphere has been abruptly sliced in what might be termed ‘Hemisphere interuptus’. Here the curving roof finishes in an articulated shear wall. From some viewpoints this unfortunately weakens the overall impact and potency of the design.

Above: The curving roof finishes in an articulated shear wall, which from some viewpoints unfortunately weakens the overall impact and potency of the design. 
Below: The unfortunate first impression of the interior. Photography by Michael Smith

Approaching such a formidable building form raised expectations about to what the interior spaces would offer. Perhaps the interiors might present a contemporary version of the domed reading room of the State Library of Victoria? Moving through the Lt Malop street entrance presented as something of a disappointment.  Having moved through the lobby space and into the main atrium, the natural inclination to look up into the volume found a much lower height than expected. The first impression seemed to be dominated by the exposed ventilation ducts. As the eye returned to the ground level a bright yet robust space revealed itself. Gone were the tan carpets and neutral colours of libraries of the previous century. In their place bold blue hues, a polished concrete floor and an 80 seat cafe.

Photography by Emma Cross

Moving up through the building, it becomes clear that the change in level has also provided for a change in use. On the first floor is the reading nest and cave designed specifically for the kids to discover the joys of reading. The second floor is for the general library collection. Here along the glazed western facade, the connection to Johnstone Park is captured superbly. The individual lounge chairs looking out to the garden view are perhaps the premier public interior reading spaces, anywhere in the state.

Moving further up the building, level 3 houses the Heritage Centre program. Here a smaller public space is dominated by the bright red tones. Beyond the public / private dividing wall is the 4.2 Kilometres of compact storage to enable the centre to expand their collection, well into the future.

Continuing up the staircase, the visitor passes the entry to the administration area. Through the glass it can be seen that the bold colours found elsewhere have been substituted out and the tan carpet is indeed back. Perhaps this is referencing the tones of the outer shell, however it also seems a step back from the vibrancy of the other levels.

Photography by Emma Cross

Once at the top floor, the curved interior ceiling space finally reminds you that you are in fact within a sphere. Aptly named ‘The High Ground’ or ‘Wurdi Youang’ in the indigenous Wadawurrung language, this level easily provides the most dramatic experience. The space opens up to reveal a spectacular auditorium for public lectures or events. Referencing the tiling pattern of the exterior shell, the domed ceiling creates an interior space truly worthy of the exterior form. The flexible Auditorium space is complemented by a north facing deck with the ultimate view of Geelong and the bay. It is easy to see how much of an asset this space will be for functions, public talks and forums.

Overall the architecture has to be considered a big success. Whilst the interior spaces in some areas appear underdone, this is likely due to the Architects working hard to get the big ticket items correct. The details have not been finessed to an inch of their life, but the ambitious program has been successfully housed within an even more ambitious form. The $45.5 Million of public funds from all three levels of Government to realize this project has been very well spent.

So what then is the purpose of the 21st century public library? It is about accommodating a diverse set of community needs, from sourcing and filtering information to providing meaning to that information. The library is a gathering place to hear lectures and discuss ideas as well as a place where one can be alone to experience the joys of reading in a public space with a supreme outlook. For some it will be the beginning of new careers, where learning can be fostered and new technologies can be mastered. Ultimately the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre shows how the public library as a building type is as relevant as ever.

This article was originally published on The Red & Black Architect and was republished with the permission of author Michael Smith.